This Article is by Rev. John Makokha, Kenya
Submitted on March 13, 2012
The situation of people living with HIV and AIDS in Kenya is getting more critical everyday. And our inaction and negative response to this pandemic puts into question the direction of our compass on health and sexuality issues.
What happened recently in Likoni in the coastal town of Mombasa in Kenya in regard to physical violence on the gay persons who were attending the HIV /AIDS workshop is disturbing. Again religious leaders led a mob to stone the gay persons who were attending a seminar on HIV/AIDS organized by the Kenya AIDS NGOs Consortium.
Homosexual activity was widespread in medieval monasteries; Greek literature describes homosexual relationships between youth and older men. The Roman world also acknowledged homosexual behavior. We have also had homosexuals in the African culture. Throughout history political and religious tolerance and acceptance of homosexual behavior has varied depending on religious dogmas and political persuasions.The social sciences indicate that anywhere from two to four percent of the population is predominantly homosexual. This means that we cannot deny the existence of homosexuals in our respective localities. Most clients of MSM are married men with families or homosexuals who have been forced to marry wives due to social and family pressure.
According to sero-prevalence studies among small groups of MSM in Nairobi and Mombasa, done by International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), Kenya has documented up to 40 per cent HIV prevalence rate among men who have sex with men. Men who have sex with men in Kenya have been identified as one of the driving forces of HIV infections, therefore the risk of wider spread of HIV beyond the men who have sex with men (MSM) community. We cannot have total war against HIV if we are discriminating a section of the population on the basis of their sexual orientation.The MSM have been known to suffer from stigma, isolation and discrimination when visiting health providers. Religious leaders and main stream organizations reject and condemn gay persons wholesale that they are sinners and expressly going to hell. MSM people face gigantic oppressions by society, religion, and the law.
Socio-cultural factors, such as perceptions and experiences of stigma and discrimination, homophobia and internalized oppression may also lead to increased risk of HIV infection in MSM. These factors may play a significant role in increasing unprotected anal sex, multiple sexual partners, and inconsistent use of condoms.In Kenya we have laws that criminalize homosexuality that end up making MSM more vulnerable to HIV infection. The criminal law excludes MSM from sexual health programmes out of fear of being arrested and prosecuted. Some health care providers may worry that they will also be arrested for delivering services to MSM. As a result the MSM prefer to operate underground exposing themselves further to higher risk of HIV infections.
Relentless harassment, ridicule, rejection and violence lead many MSM to actively hide their relationships. This disconnects them from social support and other resources that could improve their general health. People living with HIV and AIDS, health care providers and the community must be part of an informed and empowered community for health care without any discrimination.Religious organizations in Kenya have been reported to have intolerant attitudes to MSM. Non-conforming sexual orientations are a challenge to the Abrahamic faiths that states that humans are created as man and woman. In most cases these scriptures are interpreted literally.
When gay men succumb to social pressure and enter into heterosexual marriage, they will often maintain sexual relationships with male partners. This can result in unseen sexual networks, multiplying opportunities for HIV transmission and making it difficult to reach sexual partners with health information and interventions.Hostile conditions can push MSM underground, making them virtually “invisible” in the epidemic and extremely difficult to reach with the HIV information and services they may need. Healthcare providers may intentionally and unintentionally express disapproval and prejudice, driving MSM a way from health care settings. Homophobia impedes an effective Aids response.
MSM are at higher increased risk of HIV/AIDS infections due to hostile social/cultural and religious environment. Behavior identity often hidden and health services not responded to MSM needs. Gay people have been under-served.Religious leaders must be trained and sensitized on the need to handle MSM community with dignity they deserve and reduce homophobia. They should be made aware that without addressing MSM as a vulnerable group to HIV/AIDS then there will be no end to this pandemic.
The religious institution should be a peaceable community that mediates justice and grace of God. Everyone should be drawn into the safe and inclusive space that does not discriminate on the basis of sexuality and gender identity. There should be restoration of human rights and establishment of justice that is acceptable to all people.One of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) calls for halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases like tuberculosis, by 2015. These cannot be achieved without improvements in the access to educational awareness and protection of human rights and dignity for both heterosexuals and homosexuals.
It is evident that HIV/AIDS pandemic is one of the challenges of human health and prospects of achieving socio-economic and political development. Silence and violence is not an option for religious leaders. Injustice and suffering of the gay community compel religious institutions to advocate for change. They should speak with one voice against unjust violence and attitudes that deprive human beings of any dignity and peace.
We need sustained programs from an informed position by all stakeholders at micro or macro level to fight total war against AIDS in Kenya. We must break the silence about HIV and sexual orientation.HIV and AIDS affect all of God’s children, and thus, all must have a stake and a voice in its eradication.
Indeed, AIDS represents one of the greatest challenges to God’s will for creation, and one of the greatest threats to our common humanity.